Maybe if my television set wasn't broken I wouldn't spend so much time thinking of these things. Or maybe I would. You really can't escape pro football during the season just by smashing your TV set. Everywhere you go, the same helmeted images lurk—in friends' homes, in bars, in waiting rooms.
It was the deadly dullness of seeing skilled, padded athletes performing the same roles over and over again in identical situations that led me to take a ball peen hammer to my TV and started me thinking of ways to "enliven" the game of pro football. The problem, as I see it (and I see it on Saturdays, Sundays, Mondays and, sometimes, even Thursdays), is that in team sports like football everyone has a specific role. Guards block, receivers catch, linebackers tackle and never—well, pitifully close to never—do the roles change.
Consider, if you will, the fact that in his 18 seasons Quarterback Fran Tarkenton handled the ball more than 10,000 times and threw 6,467 passes; yet, in the last zillion years or so, not one NFL defensive end has thrown a pass. And there even exist, one must assume, veteran offensive tackles who in their whole careers have never even held a football under game conditions. Clearly, there is room for improvement here.
My current fantasy deals with trying to break down this extraordinary specialization in pro football. After all, aren't the most exciting moments in games those when roles disappear? When a quarterback attempts to tackle a linebacker or—God, how I love this—somebody like Garo Yepremian tries to pass the ball?
September 2, 1979
In one of my early daydreams about the elimination of specialization, I envisioned NFL games in which there were 50 players on a side or in which the field was several miles long. Imagine a sustained drive of 200 first downs in a row, or a 3,000-yard breakaway run. Shrewd coaches would recruit marathon runners as free safeties. At one point, I also considered a game in which the only offensive play was the punt. Another idea I had was a game in which everyone had to crawl, and a ballcarrier wasn't down until his nose touched the turf.
In my latest brainstorm—call it Giant-Pygmy Ball, if you like—only players of very large or very small stature could be on the same team. This concept came to me after I read the comments of a visiting English dignitary who had just viewed his first American football game. "An amusing sport," the Englishman told newsmen. "But isn't it a pity the really large fellows can't run with the ball?" Yes, it is.
The rules of Giant-Pygmy Ball are quite simple. On the Giant team you have men standing at least 6'3" and weighing at least 260 pounds—at nil positions. To keep things lively (and to complete the role reversal), you match these Goliaths against a team of Pygmies—players no taller than, say, 5'11" and no heavier than 190 pounds.
A potential lineup: for the Giants at quarterback, 6'8", 275-pound John Matuszak; at fullback, 6'4", 264-pound Joe Greene; at halfback, 6'7", 285-pound Dave Butz; at Hanker, 6'3", 288-pound Dan Dierdorf; alternating at split end, 6'5", 288-pound Doug France and 6'9", 280-pound Charles Philyaw. In the Pygmies' 3-4 defense, let's start with 5'11", 170-pound Cliff Branch at nose guard; 5'9", 173-pound Mel Gray and 5'10", 180-pound Jack Dolbin at the tackles; and 5'7", 170-pound Robert Woods and 5'8", 175-pound Eddie Payton as the inside linebackers.
A slaughter, you say? Cruel and unusual punishment for the Pygmies? Not necessarily. Consider this play: Matuszak fakes to Greene, who thunders into the line, and then pitches back to Butz, who heads wide. Backpedaling furiously, Payton dodges Greene, who has difficulty bending very low to make a block. Payton then quickly circles around the rest of the interference, crosses the line of scrimmage and leaps on Butz' back. The other Pygmy linemen and linebackers, who have retreated five or 10 yards, are now recovering and pursuing. Virgil Livers, a 5'9", 180-pound outside linebacker, clings to one of Butz' legs. Like a mastodon in a tar pit, Butz slows to a walk. From the other side of the field sprint 5'9", 180-pound Defensive End Nat Moore and 5'10", 190-pound Linebacker Greg Pruitt, and proceed to fling themselves at Butz' shoe tops. Butz stumbles and goes down. Net gain: 3½ yards.
And tell me this: Once the ball is snapped deep to Payton, who's the Pygmies' shotgun quarterback as well as a linebacker, who's going to catch him?
Whole new offenses and defenses would have to be devised to allow each team to exploit its strengths and minimize its weaknesses. The Giants might go to a 2-1-8 defense, figuring the eight defensive backs would make the Pygmy receivers hear more "footsteps." And the Pygmy offensive linemen might take 10-yard splits, spreading from sideline to sideline to keep the Giants from bunching up.
It's possible neither team could stop the other and final scores would climb into the hundreds. Or it's possible both teams would have great difficulty scoring, or that one would totally outclass the other. Who knows? At least it would keep pro football fans interested until the next boring Super Bowl rolls around.